Deconstructing the NGSS Part 4: Aligned Instruction

assessment instruction puzzle

In Part 3 of this series of deconstructing the NGSS, we looked at how to align the assessments to our deconstructed learning targets.  When aligning assessments to targets, the main rule you need to remember is this:  The verb of the learning target should indicate to students what they need to do on the assessment to show mastery.  And it’s that assessment that reveals what mastery looks like for students.

If the assessment is what mastery looks like, then we need to plan instruction to get students there.  In other words, our instruction should be aligned to what mastery looks like on the assessment.

For example, let’s take a look at the assessment plan presented in the last post again:


Take a look at the first objective or learning target in the list: “I can tell the difference between weather and climate.”  Do students have to be able to internalize the definitions “weather” and “climate” in order to master this objective?  Yes.  But they also need to go one step further and actually state a difference – and the difference cannot be merely the definitions of those two terms.  Students need to examine the definitions and then extract a difference from them and state that and not just parrot back definitions they copied out of a text or off the internet.  A true difference reveals understanding, not just the capability of rote memorization.  So, on the test, students would encounter a differences chart such as the one below:

differences 2So how should your instruction help students master this objective (which looks really simple, but actually requires some thinking)? If I was back in the classroom, here’s how I’d go about it:

  1. Have students look up the text/internet definitions of climate and write them out.
  2. In pairs, have them discuss what those definitions are/what they mean in their own words and write the “student-translated” definition down in their notes.  Have the teacher confirm that the translation is acceptable before moving on.
  3. On their own, students complete a Frayer model diagram for each term.  Students should share their Frayer model diagrams with at least two other students and the teacher before moving on.
  4. On their own, have students extract a difference from their student-translated definitions and Frayer models.  They will write it down in a chart just like the one pictured above and then, underneath the chart, compile that difference into a well-thought-out, logical, beautifully constructed sentence that will bring the teacher to her knees with joy.  These charts and sentences will be teacher reviewed for feedback.

Please note two things about the instructional plan above: First, the teacher was only involved in setting up the learning activities ahead of time and giving feedback during the activities – in every step, the students were responsible for doing the work of learning.  Also note that the “answer” to the differences chart was never gone over as a whole group to avoid students writing down something that wasn’t their own thinking to begin with. Second, the students were practicing the thinking they would need to master the objective, not just the stuff that would help them master the objective.  Too often as teachers we think if we give students the content stuff they will just know how to magically put it all together…and they don’t.  We have to give them practice at not only learning the stuff, but also learning how to think with and use the stuff.

Now, I know what some people are probably thinking: “You have them the question before they took the test!  Of course they’re going to do well if you make it easy for them like that!”  Well, I don’t know if beginning with the end in mind is equivalent to “making it easy.” If you just hand out test questions as your instruction and expect kids to get the right answers and nothing else, then sure – it’s really easy!  However, the learning activities that are geared towards having students practice thinking certainly aren’t that easy for students in my opinion, especially when you have students that are a product of a educational system where quick right answers are more valued in class and on assessments than patient problem-solving.  But also don’t forget that students can only master a target they can see; if we keep what mastery looks like from them by never giving them the end-goal for mastery, then we’re just setting them up for failure rather than success.

(Also note that, as far as multiple choice questions are concerned, you should definitely NOT give them the same questions during instruction as you would during the test, because students will memorize correct answers and then you cannot draw valid inferences regarding what they have actually mastered.  Questions assessing similar content, concepts, and skills should be given during instruction/on formatives, but should not be the same questions as on the summative assessment in order to draw valid inferences about student understanding.)

Bottom line, your instruction needs to be planned in such a way that aligns to what mastery looks like on your assessment.  However, students not only have to practice with the content/conceptual stuff they’ll need to master, but also the thinking they will have to do with it.  To me, the “thinking practice” is much more important than any science stuff I ever taught students.  Why? Because I remember hearing once that, after students graduate from high school, they forget about half of what they learned in 6 months because they simply don’t use it or don’t need it for what they are doing with their lives.

But will all students need the ability to think, no matter where their lives take them? Absolutely.




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